Development and human rights – a plea for a more critical embrace

To me, the draft post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a poorly made Khichdi—otherwise a delicious Indian hotchpotch of rice, lentils, and any vegetables at hand, suitably spiced up and of course bien cuit. My skepticism apart, or perhaps because of it, I read with interest the commentaryon human rights and the SDGs by Radhika Balakrishnan and Ignacio Saiz.

Their own work reflects how the engagement between heterodox economics and human rights imagination can lead to new articulations of the relevance of human rights to economic policy. For instance, speaking about financial flows or taxation and fiscal measures in relation to human rights obligations.

My concern in this piece, therefore, is not whether human rights is relevant to development or economic policy, but rather how development is received and constructed within the human rights framework – and the resulting impacts. I use as my point of departure, Balakrishnan and Saiz’s comment that the draft SDGs “are conspicuously silent” on the role of human rights as “a universal normative framework for sustainable development “. (Emphasis mine)

Insofar as I understand this claim, I am not sure how or why it is seemingly self-evident. It also gives rise to some questions, starting with two. Are we locked into a ‘human rights and’ or a ‘human rights-based approach to’ X, Y or Z, with the latter detached from other ethical and political vocabularies? What does such human-rightsification imply for both human rights and development?

Underlying the so-called human rights-based approach is the belief that human rights provides an all-encompassing normative and ethical framework.  Regardless of the issue—social policy, debt and the financial system, the global aid architecture, climate change and the environment, trade and intellectual property, criminal justice—human rights is already and always, apparently, an effective normative guide.  This is hard to sustain, especially with regard to development.

Notwithstanding their value, core human rights concepts like ‘non-discrimination’, ‘equality’, ‘participation’, or ‘accountability’, tell us nothing about the structures and processes of development that have resulted in discrimination, inequality, and lack of participation or accountability.  In fact, for decades the critique of development has been that these wrongs are inherent to its processes, not merely incidental. That is, the issue is not (merely) inadequate recognition of human rights within development, but development itself.

The problem, as I see it, is that human rights and its core concepts do not provide a sufficiently deep analysis of the interior of development – the material conditions, the political, economic, and ideological structures shaping it, and the inner logic of the resulting violence against society and the environment.

The human rights story of development is told largely in terms of impacts—that must be anticipated, measured and monitored, and negative ones mitigated and redressed. This risks entrenching a techno-bureaucratic rationality.  Many positive and negative impacts and outcomes of development can indeed be explained in human rights terms. But even here the human rights approach can only recognize victims of development by framing their experience in its own normative terms rather than in terms of the social and political-economic structures and relations that cause harm. And its obvious anthropocentrism means that non-human victims do not even get an audience.

How can human rights provide a ‘universal normative framework’ for something it cannot even fully explain, How can human rights provide a ‘universal normative framework’ for something it cannot even fully explain?let alone discursively contain, except through an act of normative appropriation and forced universalization that is tantamount to discursive violence?

While the push for a right to development was a contingent political maneuver by states emerging from colonialism, it is important to ask if the very act of framing development as a right has in fact impeded the space available to question the idea of development itself. Within human rights circles the debate has tended to focus on the technical and legal substance of right to development (i.e., soft/hard law, justiciability, indicators, etc.), rather than development itself.

This point is also underlined, albeit differently, in a recent book on the right to development published by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This 500-plus-page volume on development does not appear to engage substantially with the critique of the idea of development—a voluminous body of work going back decades that is of immense political and intellectual significance.

As far as this volume is concerned the history of development essentially begins with the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, in which is latent an internally referenced pre-history (pronouncements by various intergovernmental/UN bodies going back to the 1940s). Actually this is hardly an exception or an oversight, but rather exemplifies the tendency within mainstream human rights discourse to often erase the pasts of the ideas and vocabularies it embraces.

On its front cover, the OHCHR volume includes photographs that appear to be from the protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Occupy movement in New York; there is in fact a reference to both in the High Commissioner’s foreword. But the authors - the voices inside - are almost all either academics (many long in circulation within the UN System) or other ‘experts’ currently or formerly within the UN system.  There are no voices from ‘Tahrir’, Occupy or other social and political movements speaking about the fundamental challenges posed to dominant ideas of freedom and development.

Ramy Raoof/Flickr (Some rights reserved) 

Protesters at Tahrir Square, Cairo. How are their voices represented in the "normative universal framework" of established human rights dialogue?

This small but significant act of simultaneous erasure and appropriation – invoking particular, ideologically motivated narratives of resistance to bookend a very different set of universal claims – signals the dangers flowing from the bureaucratisation of ‘universal normative frameworks’. 

Further, the last part of the book reflects the increasing preoccupation of human rights with metrics – constructing complex measures and indicators. It is pertinent to ask if the human rights approach is increasingly tending towards melding a juridical rationality with a techno-bureaucratic rationality (characteristic of dominant neo-liberal economic and development thinking), to generate a new knowledge-power complex with far reaching ‘truth effects’. 

None of this is to suggest that the human rights framework has nothing to contribute to debates around development or economic policy. Rather, it is a plea that it starts from a more modest place, one that not only recognises its own limitations but also the importance of political histories and other ethical vocabularies.

The idea that human rights can provide a ‘normative universal framework’ for just about everything is as dangerous as it is mistaken. Given its vulnerability to being structured from above by a global human rights machinery and the state and non-state investments in it, more than ever before the human rights discourse merits a very critical embrace.